Happy Birthday lawsuit seeks millions, claims song should be public - Reverb

Happy Birthday lawsuit seeks return of millions, claims song should be in public domain

Jennifer Nelson, a filmmaker, in New York, June 13, 2013. Nelson filed a lawsuit which seeks to declare the "Happy Birthday to You" song to be in the public domain and to block a music company from claiming it owns the copyright to the song and charging licensing fees for its use. (Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times)

Jennifer Nelson, a filmmaker, in New York, June 13, 2013. Nelson filed a lawsuit which seeks to declare the “Happy Birthday to You” song to be in the public domain and to block a music company from claiming it owns the copyright to the song and charging licensing fees for its use. (Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times)

Donald Trump better watch his back — or at least his wallet. Today’s celebrity birthday boy might have more to bargain for when he makes a wish on his 67 cake candles. If Trump’s “friends” sing him the go-to song of the day, “Happy Birthday to You” to him in public, he is technically breaking the song’s copyright.

However, one group is aiming to change that policy, fighting to bring the “Happy Birthday” song into the public domain. Good Morning To You Productions is currently making a documentary about the song, and filed a lawsuit Thursday seeking to have the song put in the public domain. It argues the copyright on the song expired in 1921, and that it should not have been forced to pay $1,500 for the rights to use the song in the documentary. It is seeking class action status to have Warner/Chappell return all of the millions in fees it has collected. The suit argues that Warner/Chappell “collects more than $2 million a year in copyright fees on ‘Happy Birthday,'” as CNN reports.

“More than 120 years after the melody to which the simple lyrics of ‘Happy Birthday to You’ is set was first published, defendant Warner/Chappell boldly, but wrongfully and unlawfully, insists that it owns the copyright to ‘Happy Birthday to You,'” the lawsuit reads.

Warner/Chappell Music claims to own the copyright to the 120-year old, 16-word song, which is said to be the best-known piece of music in the English language. Anyone who performs the song publicly risks a $150,000 fine if they don’t agree to pay for the rights upfront.

Obviously the company doesn’t come after individuals singing the song to their kids at roller rinks, but it does demand money anytime the song is sung on TV or in a movie. Ever wonder why your favorite restaurant has a slightly different version of the song when they come to your table with your free piece of birthday cake? This is why.

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Kelsey Fowler is currently studying nothing music-related at Ithaca College. Help keep her in the loop on Twitter.